The origin of the marimba, Guatemala’s national instrument, is unknown. Some maintain it came from Indonesia, others from the Amazon, yet it’s more widely believed that slaves brought it over from Africa in the 16th century; after all, a Zulu myth tells of a goddess named Marimba creating a musical instrument of wooden palings and hanging gourds.
The background sound track of many a festival, both in rural areas and in the city, the marimba is an integral, beloved and authentic part of Guatemalan culture with no ethnic boundaries. A fiesta without marimba would be considered no fiesta at all, and the sound of its lively melodies echoing through the streets is a sure sign that something is being celebrated.
A poem about the marimba is recited during the commemoration of independence and gigantes, the giant figures that are such an important part of pueblo pageants, are accompanied only by the sound of its music. There are also a number of traditional dances that go along with various marimba rhythms.
Similar to a wooden xylophone, this beautiful percussion instrument is played by differing numbers of musicians depending on its size. The keys, usually made of rosewood, are arranged like a piano and are tapped with mallets, creating its distinctive musical tones. There is a Guatemalan saying about large families having una marimba de hijos, likening the horde of children to the abundance of keys on the instrument.
It’s said that the marimba evolved from simple wooden bars placed over a hole in the ground, which the indigenous people of Guatemala copied and refined to create their own style. The first documented account of the existence of marimba is from a performance in front of the cathedral in Antigua in 1680, and it can still be heard every year on July 25th, Antigua’s patron saint day. Modern marimba bands dress formally and consist of a smaller marimba for three players, a larger one for four, a drum kit or other percussion, and a string bass.
JADES, S.A. recently made the first marimbas with jade keys. They were inspired by the Chinese who have used the semi-precious stone for thousands of years to make musical instruments, due to its special acoustic properties. Now three various sized marimbas of jade, each producing a different sound, are on display in their museum in Antigua.
To get a taste of this diverse culture, head for the 5a. Avenida Norte on a Sunday. A father and his family including young children, all dressed in typical indigenous attire, perform together in the street. It’s also played in La Fonda de la Calle Real and sometimes in Parque Central at weekends and festivals.
To feel the heartbeat of Guatemala keep your ears pricked for the pulse of marimba wherever you go. No visit here is complete without hearing the harmonies of the instrument that identifies completely with Guatemala.
All day on 31st of December the main tourist drag in the city of Antigua, Guatemala, the street with the landmark arch, buzzes with festivities to welcome in the New Year.
Amongst them, an indigenous family band of father and children, called Grupo Maya Kaqchikel, jams on marimba, drums and a combo of instruments made from seashells, vegetable gourds and turtle shells while the youngest son dances. They are also part of the regular Sunday scene in the same street.
Every year on the 7th of December a parade of floats makes its way through the streets of the former capital of Guatemala, Ciudad Vieja just outside Antigua. It’s customary to hold a convite the day before a procession and this one ushers in el Día de la Virgen de La Concepción.
There was a strange and colorful mix of religious and cultural themes including angels, indians, Spaniards, cowboys, devils, men dressed up as women and cartoon characters. It was a truly Guatemalan experience.
No festival in Guatemala is complete without the sound of marimba.
Another band member.
A float waiting for the parade to begin.
A hungry dwarf.
Little angels sitting on the float.
And another angel.
The pirates are coming.
And here they are.
A cowboy handing out flyers for the next days folk dance schedule.
A Spaniard’s horse.
A Spaniard and his horse.
A cowboy on horseback.
An indian wearing a feathered headdress.
A friendly indian going the right way.
A bunch of cowboys.
The bull in action.
Mary and some angels.
A peasant with his bottle of Guatemalan rum.
Who is this?
Reindeer and a Christmas theme.
Not sure who this is.
All together handing out flyers.
And another beauty with her drunken beau and his bottle of Gallo beer.
What a happy face.
Really going for it.
The first of the Abuelitas Parranderas or Partying Grandmothers.
Two more beauties.
Waiting in line.
They go in two by two.
The partying begins.
Really going for it. These women were awesome dancers.
Showing the footwork.
That was hard work. So elegant.
And who are these?